The West can proudly boast its advocacy of liberal democracy, pluralism, and freedom of expression, and Judeo-Christian values are contrary to those.
The argument that Western values are based on Judeo-Christian ideas is quite old. In fact, it is a fashionable form of the good old “morality comes from religion” argument. Perhaps the recent popularity of this position stemmed from the speeches of influential speakers such as Ben Shapiro and Dr. Jordan Peterson. We can say, without much reservation, that the contributions made by individual Christians and Jews laid the foundation of the West. But, should we praise their religions for this?
The West can proudly boast (and rightly so) its advocacy of liberal democracy, pluralism, freedom of expression. It is precisely the Western secular democracy that the Islamic fundamentalism is at war with. Does that indicate that the West owes its culture to the Judeo-Christian traditions?
Morality and human decency predate religion. It has long been a bone of contention between theologians and scientists. No idea is beyond scrutiny. The idea that Western civilization is based on Judeo-Christian values is historically erroneous, if not preposterous. Had Western culture stemmed from Judeo-Christian values, we would be having a bleak theocracy in the West. Instead, the secular democracy stands against all that is represented by religious fundamentalism – feudalism and serfdom. Thank God for the Enlightenment! Amen. Let’s see why.
The Foundation of Democracy
The word ‘democracy’ owes its roots to the Greek words demos (people) and kratos (power). Judeo-Christian values did not give birth to democracy. Ancient Athens did, so did its predecessors in Vaishali, an ancient Indian state which flourished in 6th Century BCE, and practiced Gana Sangha. Gana (those having equal status) and Sangha (an assembly) constituted the state. In other words, the state was governed by a confederacy of clans (or, families) represented by powerful members. Vaishali did not have a proper democracy, since the power was centered around small ruling families. However, it can be regarded as an ancient “chiefdom”, rather than a kingdom. Having less opposition to independent opinion and giving value to the individual, Vaishali might have constituted a form of prenatal democracy.
However, democracy in Athens was not without its faults. Despite rising above the values of the time, Athenian democracy did not accommodate the female perspective. Women were not allowed to vote in the ekklesia (the citizen assembly), nor did they have any active political right. Slaves, too, lacked voting rights. But the conception of democracy was an achievement worth admiring. Despite all its flaws, Athenian democracy was ahead of its time.
The holy texts, however, prescribed something entirely different which did not resemble anything close to a democracy. A few examples of passages from the Bible which show how God, and not the individual, was seen as the authority power are given below:
“When you enter the land the Lord your God is giving you and have taken possession of it and settled in it, and you say, “Let us set a king over us like all the nations around us,” (Deuteronomy 17:14)
“Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Romans 13:1)
“Consequently, whoever rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.” (Romans 13:2)
Freedom of Expression
Arguably, the dearest freedom of all is the freedom to express oneself. Even in turbulent totalitarian times, we find refuge in the tales that liberate our voices. Did the tomes of the Judeo-Christian tradition encourage the same? Many would reply in the affirmative. Evidence, however, suggests the opposite:
“If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known), then you must certainly put to the sword all who live in that town. You must destroy it completely, both its people and its livestock. You are to gather all the plunder of the town into the middle of the public square and completely burn the town and all its plunder as a whole burnt offering to the Lord your God. That town is to remain a ruin forever, never to be rebuilt.” (Deuteronomy 13:12-16)
The verses above seem to be at one with the infamous Inquisitions. Looking askance to the prescribed faith is to be punished, say the holy texts.
“[A]nyone who blasphemes the name of the LORD is to be put to death. The entire assembly must stone them. Whether foreigner or native-born, when they blaspheme the Name they are to be put to death.” (Leviticus 24:16)
However, suppression of dissidence is not unique to the Judeo-Christian values. It is a tactic used by every totalitarian cult. The Inquisitions’ infamous practice of incinerating freethinkers eclipses many historical brutalities. Ironically, Socrates had to meet a similar fate back in the Athenian society. It somehow served as an ominous indication of the collapse of democracy within half a century.
The British Bill of Rights, established in 1689, might have been the most recent foundation of modern freedom of speech. The concept dates back to 6th century BC. And, again, we owe it to the Greeks. The democratic ideology of free speech possibly emerged in Athens, around the 5th or 6th century BC. The Greeks used two different words to advocate freedom of speech – parrhesia and isegoria. These two words were, however, technically different. Free speech in Athens was not without consequences, as we can expect from a society which is just finding its feet on building a democratic republic.
Not long after the 1917 revolution in Russia, Rosa Luxemburg accused Lenin’s faction of silencing dissidents, something she contemptuously called the “barracks” mentality. The religious demagogues leave no stone untouched in their quest against the Commies, and rightly so. Ironically, free speech remains to be anathema to a large section of the religious right. Blasphemy laws throughout the world speak volumes for it. These laws often enjoy a mawkish apology from some so-called moderates. In a 2014 analysis conducted by the Pew Research Centre, 16% of the European countries were found having blasphemy laws in some form. This is not an invention of modern times but, as can be seen in the above verses, blasphemy laws have their origin in scriptures.
“[B]ut whoever blasphemes against the Holy Spirit will never be forgiven; they are guilty of an eternal sin.” (Mark 3:29)
The Abolition of Slavery
US baptist leader and slave-owner Richard Furman (1755-1825), while holding the position of the president of the State Baptist Convention, wrote to the governor, “The right of holding slaves is clearly established in holy scriptures, both by precept and example”. Did slavery really have scriptural support?
“If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. If he comes alone, he is to go free alone; but if he has a wife when he comes, she is to go with him. If his master gives him a wife and she bears him sons or daughters, the woman and her children shall belong to her master, and only the man shall go free. But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life.” (Exodus 21:2-6)
The central tranche of these verses revolves around slavery. But, it does not denounce the practice. On the contrary, it dictates rules. Is not this an indirect condonation of the practice, if not direct countenance? Apologists often quote the 16th verse of the same chapter to supposedly prove that the Old Testament does not approve of slavery.
“Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death.” (Exodus 21:16)
““If a man is found stealing one of his brothers of the people of Israel, and if he treats him as a slave or sells him, then that thief shall die. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” (Deuteronomy 24:7)
However, the verse applies only to the Hebrews and, specifically, to kidnapping someone. The slaves are to be taken from the “people around”, as Leviticus instructs:
“Your male and female slaves are to come from the nations around you; from them you may buy slaves. You may also buy some of the temporary residents living among you and members of their clans born in your country, and they will become your property. You can bequeath them to your children as inherited property and can make them slaves for life, but you must not rule over your fellow Israelites ruthlessly.” (Leviticus 25:44-46)
This attitude is consistent with these verses from Deuteronomy.
“When you march up to attack a city, make its people an offer of peace. If they accept and open their gates, all the people in it shall be subject to forced labor and shall work for you. If they refuse to make peace and they engage you in battle, lay siege to that city. When the Lord your God delivers it into your hand, put to the sword all the men in it. As for the women, the children, the livestock and everything else in the city, you may take these as plunder for yourselves. And you may use the plunder the Lord your God gives you from your enemies. This is how you are to treat all the cities that are at a distance from you and do not belong to the nations nearby.” (Deuteronomy 20:10-15)
The emergence of Christianity did nothing to denounce the dilapidated system of slavery. In contrast, centuries before the emergence of Christianity, Solon, a law reformer in ancient Athens, reformed the law to release all enslaved Athenians. The Athenian Constitution, established in 330 BCE, confirms it. Many such progressive ideas emanated from ancient Greece. Christianity, on the other hand, had the opportunity to denounce slavery. The glaring lack of evidence suggests that he did not. Apologists seem to have a barrage of justifications for Jesus’ attitude towards slavery. One such pseudo-historical justification is worth dissecting. Jesus was born at a time when slavery was commonplace and was not seen as damnable as it is today. However, this argument does not hold water. While Jesus did not find slavery worth denouncing, his contemporary in ancient China did.
Wang Mang, a ruler of ancient China, abolished slavery in the year 17 CE. His intention was to curb the power of the landowners. It drew the ire of the landowning families. They conspired against him and organized a coup. Wang was killed in the year 23 CE. After his death, slavery was re-established. The fact that he tried to abolish slavery sets him apart from his contemporaries around the world, including Jesus.
“Slaves, obey your earthly masters with respect and fear, and with sincerity of heart, just as you would obey Christ.” (Ephesians 6:5)
In the British empire and through the colonies, the Slavery Abolition Act was passed in the year 1833 eighteen hundred years after the emergence of Christianity, while the United States would only abolish it in 1965. Had our conception of slavery, and its abolition been based on Judeo-Christian values, one would expect that slavery would be abolished much earlier. Instead, the abolition of slavery came about in the US, one of the earliest modern examples of a democratic state, without it being based on Judeo-Christian values. Had it been guided by the so-called Judeo-Christian values, we would have seen something different. It is worth noting that secular humanist Richard Randolph started freeing his slaves in 1791.
What would you rather applaud? Judeo-Christian ethics, or secular humanism?
Other Essential Values
Beyond slavery, one may ask whether Judeo-Christian values conform to the conception to our modern-day conception of democratic values. Do Judeo-Christian scriptures treat all genders equally? Probably not.
“But I would have you know, that the head of every man is Christ; and the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” (1 Corinthians 11:3)
Misogyny and patriarchy can be found in the majority of religious texts and the Bible is not an exception. It mandates, for example, killing spouses if they lie about their virginity. One cannot deny this arid dullness of theocratic tyranny promoted by the holy books.
“But if this thing be true, [and the tokens of]virginity be not found for the damsel: Then they shall bring out the damsel to the door of her father’s house, and the men of her city shall stone her with stones that she die: because she hath wrought folly in Israel, to play the whore in her father’s house: so shalt thou put evil away from among you.” (Deuteronomy 13:20-21)
The Praetorians Guards of the holy books would often attempt to excuse the Bible for its misogyny, by bringing up the “cultural” context. The Bible’s rulings, they say, were based on the cultural standards of the time. In a way, they admit that the Bible was influenced by the morals of the said era – not the other way around. The same holds true for the Ten Commandments. Only three of the Decalogues (four, if we let go of our reservations) can be accommodated by a modern society. However, the God of the Old Testament was not the first to forbid murder and theft. Societies within the Fertile Crescent had already mandated against these, albeit in a coarser manner.
The oldest known law code was written in the Sumerian language, around 2050 BC. Referred to as the Code of Ur-Nammu, the laws specified stringent punishments for theft and murder. Three hundred years later, another law code was written – this time in the Babylonian cuneiform script, during the reign of King Hammurabi. Both of the law codes declared murder and theft as capital offenses.
Christopher Hitchens used to refer to the Abrahamic God as the “celestial North Korea”. Indeed, the Bible seems to espouse thought-regulation – something eerily similar to the Orwellian concept of thought-crime.
“You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.” (Matthew 5:21-22)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.” (Matthew 5:27-29)
There is no point in glorifying these archaic, sordid and scary traditions. We do not hear apologetics about the Code of Hammurabi as the culture that gave birth to it ceased to exist long ago. Clogging the discussions with tawdry apologetics for the Judeo-Christian values does no good. On the other hand, it is worth pointing out the deep contrast many of these values have with modern, liberal thought.
For a modern society, it is impossible to compromise with the disseminators of religious demagoguery like this. The noble verses of the holy books constitute a mere bagatelle when set beside the plethora of the regressive ones. Had Solon and his Greek comrades not been there, we would never have seen the West we see today. Should we not express a little bit of gratitude?
- Origins of Democracy in Ancient Greece, Raaflaub, Ober, Wallace
- The Athenian Democracy in the Age of Demosthenes, Mogens Herman Hansen
- Early India: From the Origins to AD 1300, Romila Thapar
- Women in Athenian Law and Life, Roger Just
- God: The Failed Hypothesis, Victor Stenger
- Angelina E. Theodorou, Which countries still outlaw apostasy and blasphemy? (Pew Research Centre, http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/07/29/which-countries-still-outlaw-apostasy-and-blasphemy/)